Zanskar; a new cycle touring and trekking mecca?
The Zanskar trek, Darcha to Lamayuru, was once the ultimate India trek but road building has eaten it away. Soon, though, these roads will link up offering new possibilites. By 2020 the new Manali-Zanskar-Kargil highway will become one of the most scenic and adventurous cycle touring and motorbike touring roads there is, with additional trekking advantages too. Exciting possibilities!
Sadly, now there must be a bulldozer track across the banner photo :(
Barely connected Zanskar
Reaching Zanskar takes time and is a rough journey. Currently (2018) Zanskar is two days drive from either Leh or Srinagar, which breaks down to a day on the main road to Kargil and then a rough day's driving on an unsealed road via the stunning Rangdum-Pensi La. Additionally, there is only one way in and out, no loop or through road. This lack of quick access or through access has prevented, some say protected, Zanskar from becoming a real adventure tourism destination, although for locals does allow fresh veg trucks and supplies in for four to five months of the year from Srinagar and Delhi 4WD tourers.
It has been wonderful for us long distance trekkers who avoid the road, and the four week trek across Zanskar from Darcha on the Leh-Manali highway to Lamayuru on the Srinagar-Leh highway was an iconic trek, arguably the trek of the greater region in the 1980s-1990s. With the old trekking route now half roads, few companies adapted the trek, instead simply dropping it. (We at Project Himalaya did adapt and our Zanskar Spring has been a staple classic of ours).
Undoubtedly a small (STOL) airport Lukla-style, if built 20 years ago, would have helped the region thrive on foreign tourism however India is not timely with infrastructure.
Now, though, there are two new long distance connecting roads in the works. These roads have come about from the tireless work of Stanzin Lakpa of of Zanskar Trek who managed to shortcut through the monstrous bureaucracy, a story in itself.
The approx route of the new highways, from Darcha to Padum and Zangla to Lamayuru
Some trekkers and trekking companies are instinctively against roads, however, I am not. I feel there should be a goal to preserve major wilderness areas and wildlife corridors but unless trekking tourism is big business, road access is going to be far more beneficial to a village area. In particular, opening a road from Manali to Zanskar will allow agricultural exports, and they want to emulate Lahaul which has become comparatively wealthy from potato exports.
The final Manali-Darcha to Zanskar unfinished section is the Shingo La (5095m pass) and with the road nearly at the village of Kargyak, October 2016, there is just a small section to Tsetang (not on Google Maps) scheduled to be finished in 2018. It is also going to be sealed to Indian highway status, which means it will become pleasant (or at least bearable) to drive. Already with the incomplete road, it is a mountain-bike touring paradise, and once the road is complete, will undoubtedly become one of the very best touring bike routes, especially because there is likely to be little through traffic. But where do you go from Zanskar?
Thankfully, the Padum-Rangdum-Pensi La-Kargil road is also due to be upgraded to a highway, ie tar sealed (at last) although their schedule, also by the end of 2018, is a little ambitious.
It is a majestically scenic journey, here is my 2013 album from our drive:
While a jeep safari to Kargil would be fun, ultimately fast access between Zanskar and Leh by an airport is what will bring tourists. The third road arm also in progress is Lamayuru to Zangla which is partly built, with only Yelchung (near Lingshed) to Zangla to tackle, currently a bit ambitous to mountain-bike, and that has perhaps a four year timeline. Then with three quality feeder highways into Padum-Zanskar, the possibilities will be amazing.
There is more too; the Rohtang tunnel is due to be finished at the end of 2019, after 25+ years, cutting out that horrible mess of a road over the pass, meaning a far smoother Manali-Darcha-Leh drive.
So in years to come, Zanskar really starts to look interesting as an adventure destination in its own right, although it will still be a beautiful day's drive from Leh.
The striking Lamayuru Gompa - Jamie
The amazing Darung Drang Glacier near the Pensi La on the Zanskar-Kargil road - Jamie
At first thought, the road kills the Darcha-Lamayuru trek route. However, with quicker access to the area, short and sweet treks become the go. Logistically, this will be easier too, locally based trekking crews working in small loops without expensive horse travel time between treks.
And then there is backpacking... Carrying 10 days of supplies is beyond most people, but four to six days? Ahhhh - and the scenery is stunning and varied, with the colourful and dry Zanskar range on one side, and the monumental glaciated Great Himalaya range on the other.
Flame rocks in Zanskar, close to where one of our trekkers, Filip, saw a snow leopard - Jamie
Tibet went from being a backwater province to a major tourism Chinese (ie domestic) destination with a staggering 5-15 million tourists a year (depending on how they are counted). India's part of the roof of the world is also a growing destination, popularized by Pangong Lake, but is only just getting started, in the longer timeframe. These Zanskar highways significantly increase the appeal and possibilities (and hopefully spur some decent hotels in Padum for a start!).
With a tear and many memories, I trekked across the Shingo La for one last time with a team in 2016. Thank goodness the under construction road was quiet and indeed the only jeep to drive to the top got stuck. Surprisingly the necessary campsites are still intact.
2016 stuck: calling this a road is being generous, this section of the Shingo La needs concrete - Jamie
Our ever-adapting Zanskar Spring trek traverses remote, wild Zanskar and our favourite villages - join us!
Currently the Darcha-Padum-Kargil route is only for the hardcore, with single track sections and unsealed, badly corrugated roads. There are basic dhabas (roadside restaurants) and homestays however camping is still required in a couple of spots. The tar sealing of the road will be the biggest, most pleasant development; I can't wait. Neither can the Enfield motorbike tourists.